The Buffalo Bills offense continues to live up to its reputation as a ground-and-pound unit that struggles to produce results through the air. Through three preseason games, Buffalo Bills passers rank 31st in yards per attempt, 28th in sacks, and dead last in passer rating.
In spite of these stats, Buffalo’s rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman has been earning accolades at the end of each preseason game. Some of that can be chalked up to the competition; T.J. Yates played badly enough against the Vikings to earn a demotion behind Peterman, while Tyrod Taylor has arguably had the worst passing stats in the NFL this preseason.
Still, the work that Peterman has done, to rise from the third string and hold his own when forced into first string action against the Baltimore Ravens, should be commended. While his numbers on paper might not impress, Peterman is passing the eye test. Here’s a deep dive.
A more accurate statline
Peterman finished with a mediocre passing line on the night: 11-for-23 (47.8 percent), 93 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions, and a fumble that he recovered. It was mostly in line with the rest of his preseason stats, so why is he getting talked up?
When evaluating a player, the results of a play aren’t as important as the process leading to those results. Peterman’s stats don’t look good. But consider:
- Four of Peterman’s passes were blocked at the line. His throwing motion didn’t particularly telegraph any of them - the defenders just had luck getting their hands on the ball.
- Two of his throws were negated by illegal formation penalties. Those throws added up to 28 yards of completions.
- Four of his passes were dropped; two were clear drops, and two were contested passes. Those passes made up another 43 lost yards.
- One of his passes, a throwaway under heavy pressure, was nearly intercepted - and it arguably should’ve been.
Take that into consideration, and a more accurate read on Peterman’s night (remove half the blocked pass attempts, include the negated throws and the interception) looks more like this:
17/23 (73.9 percent), 164 yards (7.13 YPA), 1 INT
With 1 interceptable pass out of 23 attempts, Peterman’s game would’ve ranked 18th among NFL quarterbacks in terms of the best rates measured last year in Cian Fahey’s Pre-Snap Reads QB Catalogue. His accuracy percentage of 73.9 would’ve ranked 17th.
This is the perspective to take with Peterman: He hasn’t been a standout player in the preseason, but he’s been solid, and looked passable playing increasingly tougher competition.
Easing into the offense
When Peterman came in at the start of the third drive, the Bills gave him a quarterback-friendly set of plays to make his job easier. The team was already facing a first-and-20 following a holding penalty. On his first pass, the team used a mirrored high-low concept; the outside receivers ran post patterns, and the tight end and slot receiver ran five yard hitches.
This makes the read simple for Peterman - he can narrow his choice to two or even one receiver based on the presnap coverage. Peterman targets Zay Jones, and does a great job threading the needle for a 15 yard completion.
On the next play, the Bills scheme up another mirrored concept - the boundary receivers run go routes, the slot receivers run five yard outs, and Charles Clay (also in the slot) is running up the seam. Peterman can target the deep yardage if he sees a favorable matchup, and if not, he has two receivers running at the sticks.
He does see single coverage, and tosses the ball to Jones again. The throw has great timing and targets Jones on the back shoulder, but Jones isn’t quite able to haul it in while being harassed by the cornerback.
One more way the Bills made things easier for Peterman was through the use of trips formations. Buffalo’s scheme has some formations that bunch receivers together on one side of the field. Clustering receivers like this forces the defense to tip its intentions.
On the next play of this drive, Peterman faced a third down. Three receivers lined up in a bunch on the left side. Three defenders are positioned near them, with a deep safety on that side. When the player covering Charles Clay blitzes, Peterman knows the nearest defender is that deep safety.
These playcalls are where Peterman does a great job. He can read man and zone coverage and make smart decisions with his throwing targets from the pocket. Even coming in cold from the bench, he was able to immediately start moving the football in tough situations because of the combination of player and coach.
It’s been a constant refrain in the preseason: Bills quarterbacks have not had enough time to throw the ball. Sometimes, the onus can be put on the quarterback’s pocket presence. Other times, it gets chalked up to one of the pass protectors losing a one-on-one battle. Take this near-interception of Peterman, for instance. The Ravens blitzed six defenders against six blockers. LeSean McCoy is an elite runner, but he’ll never be confused for an elite pass protector. Here, he got steamrolled.
More often, and more concerning, the pressure on Saturday was a result of a fundamental breakdown in setting the protection. Blitzers and linemen were simply not being picked up, leading to easy pressure on Peterman. Here’s one example - Richie Incognito lets #96 past, likely expecting help up the middle. But Jonathan Williams is working between the center and the right guard.
Here’s another example. The Ravens come out with an aggressive look - seven men on the line of scrimmage, and the Bills are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE). With so many players sugaring the gaps, it’s difficult to diagnose, but the QB needs to find the “middle” of the group of defenders and use that to set the pivot point for his protection scheme. He also needs to consider the possibility of an overload blitz (with more defenders coming than he allocated on one side of the ball), and find a hot route.
Peterman’s choice to throw to Nick O’Leary was aggressive, but it paid off with a first down. He had to wait a tick for the window to open, leading to a hard hit from a free blitzer. Had he targeted Brandon Tate, he could’ve thrown earlier and avoided the rush.
One more play with undue pressure. The Ravens show another aggressive presnap look: five on the line of scrimmage, nine in the box (the safety is eight yards off the ball), two cornerbacks on the outside. On a second and eight play, they’re responding to Buffalo coming out in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE).
Seven of those players blitz, and the Bills only have six in to block. Mike Tolbert comes across the formation to meet two of the blitzers, at the same time that Incognito passes #94 off to help Eric Wood block #69. Peterman appears to panic at this outcome, throwing the ball off his back foot and close to a defender. With a half second of extra blocking, Peterman could’ve set up Jones for a deep post that might just have gone to the end zone.
I’ll leave you with a few more clips of throws Peterman made during the game. Look at his ball placement, the speed and rhythm of his throwing process, and the way he uses his eyes to move defenders.
I don’t think the Bills have an exceptional talent in Peterman (although if his arm strength were to improve, I might be inclined to re-evaluate). But he’s smart, poised, and can pick apart a defense. Think of Trent Edwards, pre-concussion. He should stay with the team through his rookie contract, especially as long as he’s playing in this offense. But outside of leading this team to the playoffs as a rookie, nothing he does this year should preclude the team using a first round pick on the position in 2018.